There is no universally accepted legally binding definition of minority and minority rights. According to the Minority Rights Group (2015:267), minorities are ‘disadvantaged national, religious, linguistic or cultural groups who are smaller in number than the rest of the population and who may wish to maintain and develop their identity.’
The most widely accepted definition of minorities, that by the Special Rapporteur on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, is:
“a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a State, in a non-dominant position, whose members – being nationals of the state – possess ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population and maintain, if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity, directed towards preserving their culture, traditions, religion or language.”
As Khan and Rahman note (1999:3), this definition implies that the factors that must be taken into account in identifying minorities are:
- Numerical inferiority: Minorities are almost always imagined as numerically inferior although this is determined by reference to the size of ‘the rest of the population of a state’.
- Non-dominant position: At the core, ‘minority’ is a political and sociological reality and is not merely numerical. The determining factor is the degree of political participation and social inclusion. ‘In fact, minorities are possibly undermined not so much by their weaknesses in numbers, but by their exclusion from power’ (Khan and Rahman; 1999:16)
- Distinguishing ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics: Only those groups within a population are considered minorities who differ from the rest of the population of the state in which they exist by reference to ethnicity, religion or language. In Article 1, the United Nations Minorities Declaration refers to minorities as based on national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity.
- Nationality: Minorities are citizens of the state that they live in. They generally exclude refugees, foreigners and migrant workers, although some formulations are more inclusive and also include non-citizens (see United Nations 2010:4-5 on this.)
When applied to South Asia, this definition means disadvantaged religious, linguistic and ethnic groups are minorities as are Dalits (literally ‘broken people’ or ‘crushed’); as well as indigenous people, variously called Adivasi.